A few days after hearing that Siegfried Gursche—my former employer, my friend, a mentor—had died, I headed to my local health food store. They were both shocked and saddened by the news. Talk of the astounding work he did in the health food industry, and what a good man he was, flowed easily. Among them only the long-time store owner had ever met Siegfried personally, but everyone spoke as if they knew him—and they did, because he shared his research, his products, his passion and himself in such a personal and authentic way.
I walked up the street to a newer store that sells a large amount of natural health and nutrition products. When I delivered my news the owner did not know who I was talking about. I was flabbergasted, standing there among the homeopathic remedies, vitamins, minerals, herbs and coconut oil easily accessible and available for sale. Then I smiled and walked away, realizing that Siegfried was even more successful in his life’s work than I had known. His efforts in Canada’s natural health and nutrition industry paved the way for so many people, over such a long stretch of road—60 years of it—that many, like this man, have no clue who the father of the natural health movement in Canada was, or that one was ever required for their current day success.
If I could tell the above story to Siegfried, I’m most certain he would not be bothered at all. More than once he admitted his career was not about fame or fortune, but about helping people, and he proved this numerous times. In fact, it was his desire to help people and to simply fill a need that got him started in the natural health business in the first place.
When Siegfried came to Canada, Canadians didn’t have the choices or awareness regarding natural health alternatives we do today. Even though he was busy running his Vancouver book store, in 1954 he began importing natural health products from his native Germany. Customers were reading in some of his books about healing herbs, but had no way to buy them. My understanding is that the very first natural health product imported to Canada was by Siegfried—Olbas Oil, which is still available in quality health food stores and always has a spot in my natural medicine cabinet.
By 1956 Siegfried was importing and packaging herbal teas for distribution to Canadian health food stores, and doing so in beautiful, colour printed tea packaging, another first in Canada. His passion and growing expertise grew into Flora Distributors in 1968—a company that manufactured and distributed quality herbal remedies and natural supplements, some of which were brand new to the Canadian market, such as devil’s claw root, introduced by Siegfried in 1974.
Unfortunately he, and by this time a growing number of colleagues, had no way of informing the public about natural products and advice. It was at a Canadian Health Food Association (CHFA) meeting, April 1, 1975, that Siegfried changed the course of the natural health industry in Canada. At the meeting, where Siegfried arrived excited to hear an update about a long-anticipated newsletter meant to raise awareness about natural health, he heard instead that it was not possible. His response was to fold his paper place mat and begin planning. By the end of the meeting, the place mat-turned-magazine had been passed around the table and he’d sold enough advertising for a 16-page publication. Just two weeks later, another need was filled, when 30,000 copies of the first issue of alive, the first natural health magazine in Canada, were printed. Canada’s education in natural health had begun.
Alive publishing, run by its founder for three decades, became quickly known as the authority on quality advice, with practical and delicious recipes and beautiful photography (another of Siegfried’s talents and passions). Most importantly, alive empowered Canadians. Siegfried once explained to me, “From day one it was alive’s philosophy to help readers take responsibility for their own health and to show them how to get the most benefit from whole food as well as the herbs and food supplements sold in health food stores.”
Siegfried’s career continued to be directed by his dedication to filling needs, resulting in the import of more quality products, such as evening primrose oil, vegetal silica and flaxseed oil. He wanted everyone to have a quality juicer because of the benefits juicing brought to his life, so he made a quality juicer available for purchase. He was happy with only the best of quality and he was happy helping people. He hosted a series of tours and healthy vacations as well as health lectures in worldwide location such as Switzerland, Germany, Slovenia, Italy, Israel, Hong Kong, Thailand, Malaysia and more.
The alive book department was born in 1978 and Siegfried published dozens of practical health and nutrition guides with expert advice. Siegfried authored many books himself, including Coconut Oil: The healthiest oil on Earth (2008), Good Fats and Oils: Why we need them and how to use them in the kitchen (2002), Fantastic Flax (2000), Juicing for the Health of It (2000), and Healing with Herbal Juices (1998). He worked with Udo Erasmus , publishing first Fats and Oils, and then the revised Fats that Heal, Fats that Kill. In 1992 the alive Academy of Natural Health was created to further educate people.
In 1997 Siegfried was entered into the CHFA Hall of Fame as the father of the natural health movement in Canada. Just a year later he won the Benjamin Franklin Award for publishing the gorgeous and comprehensive Encyclopedia of Natural Healing—the first time the prestigious award was given to a health publisher.
Siegfried retired from his three decades at alive publishing in 2005 to start yet another company, to fill another great need and act on his latest passion—coconut oil. Perhaps his biggest career challenge, founding Alpha Health seemed to excite him the most. His main task was to educate people about what he called, “the healthiest oil in the world.” In doing so, he had to debunk myths, clear misunderstanding and expose misreported science.
I never heard Siegfried more excited than when he shared news about his trip to the South Pacific in 2008. He and Christel, his ever-faithful and enthusiastic wife and business partner, decided to visit one of the 19 locations in which a villager owned a DME Extra Virgin Coconut Oil pressing station. He happily described the two bumpy hours of 4-wheel driving through the jungle and one hour by canoe to get to their destination. “We received an enormously enthusiastic welcome from our hosts,” he said. It turned out he and Christel were the village’s first visitors from North America—the first white people they’d ever seen. The Gursche’s were proudly shown around the production facilities and Siegfried got to see first-hand how the best grade of raw Virgin Coconut Oil is produced. “It was a dream trip,” he said, and a dream come true as well, since he was able to witness the success of his final venture—to support economically sustainable living for third world villages through distributorship of the highest quality coconut oil. Coconut farmers could work for themselves, alongside their families and friends, and afford to send their kids to school. Canadians received “the healthiest oil on earth,” in a fair trade fashion, for health and healing.
I had the luck of working with Siegfried as a writer and editor on various projects—magazines, books and the EyeOpener—for more than a decade and can honestly say that no other person has influenced and positively impacted my life as much as he has. Siegfried’s life and work were one in the same. Meetings were held in his office, the staff lunchroom, his living room and his kitchen. He didn’t just tell me what I should eat for breakfast he invited me over for breakfast. He’d put a plant on my desk and if I didn’t know what it was he’d tell me all about it and its healing abilities. When he noticed I was addicted to his homemade pickles kept in the staff refrigerator he dragged me away from one of his seemingly impossible deadlines and brought me to his garden. We picked cucumbers, dill and horseradish root and he sent me home with his recipe for fermented pickles. “It’s so easy,” he would say about any effort he felt I should introduce into my life—juicing, kefir-making, sprouting and wholefoods cooking.
It wasn’t that I was special. He was like that with everyone. Hours upon hours were spent on the telephone or pecking away at emails in response to readers and customers who had questions or needed his advice—strangers who inevitably became friends. Siegfried considered everyone either part of his family or a friend.
Those who saw him regularly would have an answer at the ready for his usual greeting, “What’s the good word?” His style, from his attire—a suit with socks and Birkenstock sandals—to his positive outlook, was fully and uniquely Siegfried. There was no one like him. One of the many things I admired was that he was never in a rush, even when a rush would have been helpful. He always had time, for a good meal, for a family gathering, to talk with people. “You make everything seem so simple,” I said to him once. “It is simple,” he insisted. His logic and innate sense of justice have served many well. No, he wasn’t always the easiest person to get along with, and things were always done his way, Siegfried’s way was with unwavering good intentions and enthusiasm.
I asked him once what he found most rewarding about his career in natural health and he said, with a sincere smile and that ever present brightness in his eyes, “The many stories I hear back from people about how they’ve healed or improved their lives, knowing that I’ve helped people–that is my reward.”
He spoke often of giving people what he called “the glorious sunrise,” at the end of an article or a book. The ending in which they are inspired and empowered to be all they are capable of. Siegfried’s glorious sunrise, his success in helping millions of people, will continue, expand and outlive him—his life’s work will shine for however long people desire natural health, happiness and a good life.
- Sandra Tonn